Phil Blackmar still finding plenty to keep him busy - on course and off

By Mike Bailey, Senior Staff Writer

HOUSTON - These days, Corpus Christi native Phil Blackmar has plenty to keep him busy. Of the 17 PGA Tour events on his schedule this year, he's doing TV commentary for the USA Network on 16 of them.

Blackmar also helps with local swim teams, lends his expertise to junior golf, does some work for TaylorMade Golf and consults with the PGA Tour on course setup.

The other PGA Tour event Blackmar goes to - the Shell Houston Open - he plays. He wouldn't miss it for the world.

No doubt, Houston is dear to Blackmar's heart. It's the place that revived his career, but perhaps more importantly, put his name back in the limelight - helping to set the stage for the good life he enjoys now. It was at Houston, or more accurately The Woodlands, where he recorded his third, and most likely, final PGA Tour victory.

"I had been through some really tough times," Blackmar recalls of the mid-1990s, prior to winning the Shell Houston Open in 1997.

Blackmar lost his Tour card in 1994, the only time he had done so in a 16-year career on tour. He got back his playing privileges for 1995 after a successful run at the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament and looked to be making a return trip to Q-school at the end of 1995, save for a fourth-place finish in the year's second-to-last event, the Las Vegas Invitational.

He kept grinding and in 1997. It paid off as he became an unlikely winner at The TPC at The Woodlands by beating Kevin Sutherland in a playoff, nine years apart from his second PGA Tour win.

"And to do it with my father and son here in front of my hometown people was very special," said the 47-year-old Blackmar, who at 6-foot-7, is one of the tallest professional golfers of all time.

The Houston event is no longer played at the TPC at The Woodlands, which is now the East Course at The Woodlands Country Club. This year, the SHO was played at Redstone Golf Club, a Jim Hardy-Peter Jacobsen design that was originally meant to be a private club and will become that once the new Tour course next door is ready. The new Rees Jones-designed course at Redstone will be a high-end daily fee with no homes on it.

Blackmar isn't necessarily a fan of the Jacobsen-Hardy design, though he has nothing in particular against it. It just doesn't fit his game, he said, which was evident this April, when he failed to make the cut in Houston for the first time.

"Obviously, I was fond of The Woodlands, having played so well there," Blackmar said. "It was a course that suited my game a little bit better as well. It wasn't a course where you hit a lot of drivers; it was more strategy and controlling your iron shots into greens that were closely guarded by water and swirling winds.

"This is more a big golf course, a bomber's style golf course," said Blackmar, again referring to the Jacobsen-Hardy layout.

As far as the new course is concerned, he knows that will be a challenge as well, but plans to keep playing, at least until his exemptions run out in a couple years.

"I think the players will like it," Blackmar said. "I think it will be a good course, provided it all grows in and is in good shape, and it should."

‘We make golf courses too hard'

While Blackmar has no designs on being a course designer, he does have some thoughts on the subject as well as growing the game. He thinks courses are created to be too difficult for the average player.

"We make golf courses too hard," Blackmar said. "The average player is an 18-handicapper, shoots 90 or above. And we build a lot of golf courses that are very strategic, very demanding off the tee. If you don't place your ball in the right place, you can't find it or you hit it some place you don't want to be.

"I don't think that's the way golf was intended. If you look to Scotland, golf courses were wide-open with these bunkers scattered throughout. But wherever you hit your ball, you pretty much could find it."

Blackmar uses Augusta National, despite its recent changes, as a model for course design to test players of all ability.

"You could hit it a lot of places off the tee and still find it, but it was challenging around the greens," Blackmar said of the Alistair McKenzie-Bobby Jones original. "I think developers are reluctant to build a golf course like that because the general public's going to say it's wide open and too easy. But you can make it as hard as you want, simply by how you design the greens. If the greens are slightly elevated with a little bit of undulation that sit at angles, then if you don't hit to the right place, you've got a very hard approach into the green.

"If you don't have horrible stuff around the green, you give people some chance of getting it up and down, but it's still a challenging enough shot for a good player."

And you can blame technology to some degree for modern course design that's gone overboard, Blackmar said. The Jacobsen-Hardy course, for example, is more than 7,500 yards and unfortunately, many amateurs feel they need to play to that kind of length - or somewhere close to it.

Ironically, Jacobsen said the technology in golf balls and clubs benefits professionals far more than average amateurs. Tour players, for example, have clubs and shafts that are precisely tweaked to their swing characteristics, providing for the most optimal launch conditions.

And today's solid-core balls, which not only go farther but also fly straighter, realize their greatest potential at high swing speeds. You can count Blackmar among those who would like to see the performance of the golf ball scaled back on the professional level.

"I think it (distance) has gotten a little out of hand," Blackmar said. "What I liked about the game before is it was a test. You had all these different facets of the game. Where the test might have been 10 pages long, now it's only three pages long. I would like to see that test expanded again where you're tested on more facets of the game."

As far as the average player is concerned, Blackmar said difficult courses frustrate high handicappers, which makes it difficult to retain players. He also believes junior golf isn't where it needs to be, which is why he volunteers his time to help several junior programs in his hometown.

"You don't have the juniors out playing like you used to when I was growing up. I'm not sure why that is, but they have so many different things they can do, so many things they're interested in," said Blackmar, son of a former national left-handed champion. "I don't know if families are too busy now where they don't take them the time to take them out and introduce them to golf. Whatever reason the juniors are not playing the numbers where I think they need to."

As far as how much Blackmar will play from now on, that remains a question even he can't answer. For now, though, he said he's focusing on TV work and his family, which includes his wife and three children, Kristin, 21, Kellie, 19, and Philip, 17. His only son has carried his bag the past three years in Houston, where he plans to play at least the next couple years. Beyond that, who knows what's in store for Blackmar?

"When I turn 50, depending on my opportunities in television, that will determine how much I play the Champions Tour," Blackmar said. "But I will play a little bit."

Mike BaileyMike Bailey, Senior Staff Writer

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.

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